Opinion: Students Need to Step Up to the Political Plate

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A local man stands with a question for President Obama during a town hall meeting with Ohio students, workers, local leaders and small business owners in Elyria, Ohio on January 22, 2010

As the 2016 elections approach, the missing youth electorate is striking.  Despite a slight upwards tick of youth participation in President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, the 2014 midterms saw the lowest youth voting rate in the last 40 years, with only 19 percent of 18-29 year-olds casting a vote.

The results, coupled with other recent studies, suggest young people are not interested in politics. Politics, however, still matter. While the rationale given by many young people for their lack of political participation is that the system is broken, that logic only leads to a more corrupt system.

Whatever your political persuasions, the fact remains that we are not going to solve issues like immigration, inequality, health care, and the myriad of other pressing problems without public policy solutions. Thus, we need to have a vigorous debate about how to get young people tuned into politics. 

It is the only way that our broken system will be repaired.

Many proposed solutions come back to the same question: “How can we meet young people where they’re at?”  How can we use social media to engage young people in politics?  Online games?  Can we relate popular culture to politics? Can we get hip celebrities to talk about how important politics are, like this 2012 music video from Rock the Vote, “Turn Out for What?”

At the core of all these efforts is a desire to make politics fun and hip.  But should political engagement be about fun and games?  Or is it about the serious business of individuals working to collectively solve the thorny public issues that face our country?  Should we be trying to get young people to eat their proverbial broccoli?  Or should we be deep-frying the broccoli and sprinkling cheese on top to make it taste better?

This question is becoming increasingly pertinent given the entertainment-bent of the current 2016 election, which is seemingly devolving into a reality show, led by the perfect reality show candidate.  Coverage of the Republican primary has received unprecedented TV ratings, and CNN treated the run-up to their recent debate like a heavyweight boxing match-up, rather than a discussion on substantive policy issues to help decide the next leader of the free world.  Is this our new politics?  Games, pop culture, and celebrity-focused?

Just as politics should not just be about entertainment, it also should not be completely about white papers and hefty intellectual discussions.  But some sort of middle ground does exist.  Politics can be fun, especially when it’s locally based. Engaging with community members to use policy to solve problems can and should be invigorating — and fun.  

Generation Citizen helps schools across the country with an "action civics" program that teaches students how to address community issues through local government.  Last semester, at I.S. 230 in Queens, a class decided to tackle pedestrian safety because one student had lost a sibling to a car accident.  In researching the city’s laws, they found that a Queens City Council member was trying to exempt MTA bus drivers from the new law.  The students organized their peers and parents, wrote letters, and held protests.  They got politically active.  And in doing so they had fun. 

These students also recognized there's a serious aspect to politics that requires a commitment to the actual democratic process, as messy and unsavory as it might be sometimes. 

These students in Queens felt that they had an obligation to act because they saw how politics directly affected their lives.

As we seek to get young people more involved in politics, it can’t just be about meeting them where they are.  It needs to be about convincing them of their civic duty. It’s about meeting halfway.